All Saints' Church, East Finchley

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Homily for 15 (A) p.a.
(Michael Waring - Reader)

‘The one who receives the seed in thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this world and the lure of riches choke the word and so he produces nothing.’

One of the benefits of coming from a clergy family is the books that have eventually found their way onto my bookshelves. In my case this includes an almost complete set of commentaries on the books of the New Testament, originally owned by my father, which were written towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Now obviously theological and biblical scholarship have moved on a long way since these were written, and up until now I have read these commentaries purely for my own amusement and not as source material for a homily. In this case however, I thought I just had to share the wonderfully archaic and condescending part of the commentary on Matthew’s gospel for those who ‘receive the seed in the thorns’.

I quote…

“Little need be said in exposition of this account of the third class of hearers. Every pastor knows how many of the poor are kept from religion, or have the beginnings of better things stifled in them, by cares as to their means of subsistence, by the struggle to keep the wolf from the door, by the distraction of children, wives by the worry of drunken husbands, husbands by the annoyance of thriftless wives. Such things choke the word received at school, or in the Bible class, and which showed good and hopeful promise at the seasons of Confirmation and first Communion.”  

And it is not just the poor which are typecast in such a disparaging way:

“And in another class he sees the heart of religion eaten out by display, by luxury, by nicety in eating, drinking and dress; by ambition to get into some higher circle: by dissipation; by … getting too refined for the simplicity of the word; by a spurious intellectualism, which scorns the mysteries of the kingdom of grace …; or by the pursuit of fancies which so engross the mind that they all but exclude the things of God; by the postponement of the claims of religion to the claims of things which minister to amusement – horses, hounds, gardens, preservation of game, breeding of stock. So that these things, or some of them, have the first place in the mind, and the good seed is choked: and the man, the professing Christian, becometh unfruitful.”  

The Rev. Sadler, the writer of the commentary, has obviously had some pretty poor experiences with his parishioners over the years.  But it is not all doom and gloom. The commentary continues with the fruits exhibited by those that receive the seed in good soil:

“What are the fruits? They are the fruits of the Spirit. ‘The fruits of the Spirit are in all goodness and righteousness and truth.’  They are ‘love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.’  … The lives of the great saints of God in all ages, though mixed up with much superstition, many mistakes, much ignorance, many sinful tempers, many remains of the old Adam, are full of these fruits.”  

If he had just left it at that the whole thing could have been very depressing. Only the great saints having much of a chance and the rest of humanity doomed to be unfruitful, but he has one final point to pull it back from the brink.

“For while it is true, and the thought is a very awful one, that there is such a thing as laying waste the very soil in which the seed of eternal life should have taken root – that every act of sin, of unfaithfulness to the light within us, is, as it were, a treading of the ground into more hardness, so that the seed should not sink into it – or a wasting of the soil, so the seed should find no nutriment there . . . yet, on the other hand, even for those who have brought themselves into these evil conditions, a recovery is still, through the grace of God, possible: The hard soil may again become soft – the shallow soil may become rich and deep – and the soil beset with thorns open and clear. For the earthly seed cannot alter the nature of the soil, but the heavenly seed, if acted upon by the soil where it is cast, also reacts more mightily upon it, softening it when it was hard, deepening it where it was shallow, cutting up the roots of evil where it was encumbered with these; and, whenever it is allowed free course, transforming and ennobling each of these inferior soils until it has become good ground.”  

To quote a great saint, in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he says:

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.”  

And elsewhere, and in keeping with today’s parable:

“I planted the seed and Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”  

It is our choice to welcome Christ into our lives, and if we are faithful to that choice then the soil, by the grace of God, will become deep and nutritious. God does not turn anyone away; he is there, waiting to welcome us, willing us to come to him that we might receive the fruits of the Spirit.

Last Tuesday was the feast of St Benedict, so it feels in keeping to end with one of Fr Christopher’s favourite passages from the Rule of St Benedict:

“As there is a harsh and evil zeal which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a virtuous zeal which separates from vice and leads to God and life everlasting.
Let the monks, therefore, practice this zeal with most ardent love; namely, that in honour they forerun one another. Let them bear their infirmities, whether of body or mind, with the utmost patience; let them vie with one another in obedience. Let no one follow what he thinks useful to himself, but rather to another. Let them practice fraternal charity with a chaste love.  Let them fear God and love their abbot with sincere and humble affection; let them prefer nothing whatsoever to Christ, and may he lead us all together to life everlasting.”  

God is patiently waiting. All we have to do is make him our first choice.

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